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Teens and the Ever-Elusive Good Night’s Sleep

Too much screen use in the bedroom is a big part of why teens don’t get enough sleep.

Teenagers need sleep too. We all know that’s true. It just might not seem like it, when you’re dragging around at the end of the day and they’re bopping about like a caffeinated human dynamo. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), teens definitely need a minimum of eight to 10 hours a night to stay healthy and happy.

However, a lot of teens in this keep-those-eyes-glued-to-a-screen age have a hard time getting their brains to wind down enough to drift off into the land of snooze. And when they do, they can often be pulled back out two hours later with thoughts of sending that absolutely necessary text they just realized they never sent. And once they’re up, well … it’s hard to put that phone back down. They just have so many (really, really quick) things to do. Besides, they can always grab an energy drink to perk up in the morning, right?

But that kind of pattern is a looming, and soon-to-hit, train wreck. Not only does it throw off a teen’s circadian rhythm, it also prompts his or her body to produce less melatonin, which is the naturally produced hormone that promotes sleep. And then there’s the fact that those energy drinks—filled with sugar, caffeine, and other stimulants—can cause anxiety, health problems and, you guessed it, their own form of insomnia.

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Sleep. Do I?

So what’s the big deal about not sleeping all that much? Well, a lack of sleep doesn’t just make teens (and the rest of us) tired, it makes their brains less effective when they’re awake.

Even when we think we’re just kicking back, our brains are still hard at work. Or at least they’re supposed to be. Our brain regularly sifts through the day’s learning and memories. It solidifies important connections and prunes away the stuff we don’t need.

But when we humans don’t take the time to recharge our brain properly with a good night’s sleep, then our learning functions, feelings, stress management, and decision-making skills get all gummed up. That, in turn, leads to higher levels of anxiety and depression.

What Causes a Sleepless Teen Night?

Studies aplenty point to the fact that a smartphone’s artificial blue light activates arousing neurons in the brain (again disrupting the healthy chemical process for sleep). And the National Sleep Foundation recently conducted a poll that found that 96% of teens between the ages of 15 and 17 bring their phones into the bedroom.

Why do they do that? To be truthful, there are plenty of reasons.

For one thing, teens have a need to be emotionally connected with their peers. And quiet time before bed can seem like the perfect time for that, via social media. I mean, a regular teen weekday can be pretty packed with school activities, sports practices, homework, music lessons and responsibilities at home.

Let’s also admit that social media can be incredibly addictive.

Studies have shown that social media applications (which we have so many of) create stimulation patterns in our brains (yep, that ol’ brain again) that are very similar to patterns created by other addictive behaviors and substances. So it’s really hard to put down a phone or tablet once you’ve picked it up.

What to Do

So, if we can all agree that teens need sleep and that often, they’re not getting it … and that screen use at night can be impacting that lack … and those teens really want to use their phones at night anyway … what then can we do?

Well, first I would suggest a conversation.

As a family, talk about the need for making a good night’s sleep a priority. And that will mean some limits placed on screen time before bed and no phones in the bedroom. That may feel like a big leap—and it may require talking through your teen’s worries over such a move. But it’s important.

Create the Proper Environment.

Keeping a bedroom space cool, dark, and quiet at night is a good practice. Avoid harsh lighting and opt for warm lamp light when needed. In fact, a number of studies have strongly suggested that you should keep all TVs, computers, laptops, tablets, and phones out of the bedroom.

Wind down.

Start a routine where everybody steps away from their phone at a certain point each evening. Start conditioning your mind and body for a regular wind-down-to-calm period. I know that might seem impossible in a busy household, but it is doable. Maybe a quiet conversation or spending time in a good book can get everyone in the right place for sleep.

Charge your phones outside the bedroom.

This should be a habit established as early as possible. Phones have become a ubiquitous part of reality, but we can still train ourselves to separate them from us at certain points.

Limit caffeine consumption.

Yep, that can make a difference. Keep everyone away from caffeinated soft drinks and coffee in the later parts of the day. Caffeine’s effects are still sloshing around in your system for up to six-to-10 hours after consumption.

Encourage Daily Exercise.

The fact is, a tired body longs for a soft pillow. It treats you better, too.

If I haven’t made it clear, keep those phones at bay. That goes for you, too. Regular family-wide routines can lead to far better sleep patterns for everyone. And that’s a win-win for anyone with a brain.

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